In the four years since it premiered the high-wire political drama House of Cards, Netflix has performed a remarkable triple feat: building the biggest original-content slate of any cable, premium or streaming network on TV from scratch; doing it with big, expensive, strong dramas like Orange Is the New Black, Sense8, Marvel’s Luke Cage and The Crown; and doing it with original, diverse and global voices. The result has been the TV equivalent of Hank Aaron—a barrier-breaking power hitter with a high batting average.
The platform’s few critical misses have been with intentionally commercial output like Fuller House, Adam Sandler’s original films and Chelsea Handler’s talk show Chelsea, and the occasional artistic nonstarter like the convoluted Marco Polo and Will Arnett’s Flaked, which took big artistic swings that just didn’t connect.
What’s odd about the new series Frontier is how much it looks like a Netflix drama on paper —a sprawling, 18th-century epic about the North American fur trade with an international cast and interesting things to say about ethnic diversity, female empowerment, the ravages of imperialism and the pernicious reach of big business—and how conventional its failings are.
The series begins with Declan Harp (Jason Momoa), a rogue fur trader full of id and menace, carrying out a late-night execution of three former coworkers on the Canadian Frontier. “He makes us appear weak to our competitors,” Harp’s former boss Lord Benton (Alun Armstrong) says in the first episode. “Killing him is not enough. We must make an example of him. We must make him suffer.” Frontier opens from there into a cat-and-mouse game over the course of its six episodes.
Momoa, who played Khal Drogo in Game of Thrones and will play Aquaman later this year in Justice League, is 6-foot-4, built like a linebacker, and has a heavy brow and a mane of long, black hair. He’s not a traditional leading man, which works in Frontier’s favor, but what’s he so mad about? Why is he slogging through the woods in a fur coat when he could be getting a much-needed trim and eyebrow wax in Montreal? The series takes so long to provide any motivation for Declan Harp and surrounds him with such a dull, plodding story, that you may not stick around long enough to find out.
And Frontier seems surprisingly budget-conscious for a Netflix series. Almost everything is shot at eye-level. The interiors, exteriors, wardrobe, etc., all have a brownish pallor that looks more like poor color correction than an artistic decision. Nearly all of the night scenes are shot in such low light that they’re essentially unwatchable. (I changed devices to see if my TV was the problem. It wasn’t.) If you like your neo-Westerns to have big set pieces and broad panoramas as on Game of Thrones and Westworld, you will likely find Frontier flat and pinched by comparison.
Keep in mind, Netflix did not develop the series. It’s a coproduction with Discovery Canada, a distribution model that gives producers access to financing by putting their series on a broadcast or cable networks locally and on Netflix everywhere else. The CW’s Riverdale and CBS All Access’s Star Trek: Discovery, which will appear on their home networks in the United States and on Netflix in most international markets, are following the same model. The result, I think, is that Frontier lacks the scale and polish it would have had as a Netflix in-house productions.
That an ambitious, international period epic can play as too thin—too cable—in 2017 is itself a statement of just how much the TV world has changed in the last four years. I’m not sure whether this is praise, criticism or a combination of the two, but Netflix can do better.